Introduction: Pew

In the past I have bought old pews from churches which were being demolished in order to obtain the timber for re-use. I was recently given an old kitchen and so decided to reverse the process and make a pew from the timber.

The timber was heartwood Rimu, which as I discovered while making a reliquary from scraps takes on a wonderful glow with just a touch of oil, which made finishing a breeze.

Apart from the timber, which was free, there was a fair-sized investment in fasteners, finishing oil and consumables like sandpaper and paint-stripper, but all of the wood used came from the former kitchen.

The design consisted of going "yeah, I think there's enough wood to make two ends and a back, while the workbench will yield an appropriate seat length." Not ideal, and as you'll see as we go along this led to a few changes of direction en route, but it all worked out well enough.

The cushion presented particular challenges as I had no sewing experience, but even that came right in the end.

Step 1: Prepare the Timber

The door fronts, worktop and bookshelf from the kitchen are shown above. The doors and shelves were held together with screws and nails but no glue, although their coating of varnish had bonded some areas.

Once everything was pulled apart, it was time to strip. I've shown the process with the section of worktop as it was easier to handle than a load of thin strips while I was also trying to photograph things.

I used a dichloromethane stripper as I wasn't sure what type of varnish had been used and DCM will take just about anything off. It will also give you a nasty chemical burn, so wear thick rubber gloves when using it. Also, do this step outdoors on in an extremely well ventilated area. Read the tin, then read the materials sheet, then be very afraid.

Slap the stripper on and leave for a few minutes until it starts to bubble up as shown in the fifth picture above. Then scrape it off. To get into the curve at the back of the worktop I had to make this scraper which did the job perfectly. Finding or making a scraper which matches the profile of your piece will save a lot of time and trouble.

Dump the scraped off gunk onto some newspaper and dispose of it carefully according to your local regulations. Do a second pass if it's needed, and then wash the surface down. I used water here, but in later batches I used methylated spirits which was cleaner, worked better, dried faster and did not damage the surface grain as much.

The worksurface had black staining from its thirty-year life as a working kitchen. Once the varnish was removed, this stain could be attacked. Mix up a paste of oxalic acid (Barkeeper's Friend brand is common in the US, but not in NZ) and smear it on. Leave it for a while, then remove and sand. Repeat if necessary. As with the paintstripper, read the instructions on your particular packet and follow them. Safety is no accident.

Step 2: Back Rest

The back was to be formed from short vertical boards, screwed to long rails at the top and bottom, front and back. The By using wider rails at the bottom of the back, I intended to allow the rake of the back to be modified to form a comfortable angle with the vertical piece of the bench seat. The first photograph above shows this "hinge" effect in action.

I was going to have to cut a load of slats to the correct length so I built a jig to speed things up. The boards were about two and a half inches wide and the seat was a bit over three feet. Once I'd cut enough boards to fill the gap, I used a counter-bore bit to drill pilot and clearance in each end of every board, on the "bad" side which was to be the rear of the piece. The boards were aligned square on the rails and screwed securely in, leaving the front with no visible fastenings.

Then offered the seat up to back and marked the precise length required. Then I used a circular saw and a straight-edge to trim the back to the precise length needed.

Once that was done, I applied the rear rails at the top and bottom, using counter-bored holes but not going into every board. I only put about five or six screws along the length, and then used a plug-cutter bit to cut matching plugs from a piece of matching timber. The plugs were glued into place and then trimmed off with a chisel once the glue had cured.

The timber used to provide the plugs was a diagonal bracing piece from the rear of the doors which had proven too hard to de-nail. I couldn't use the wood as one piece because of the nails, but the plug-cutter could easily work around the unusable areas and yield plenty of plugs.

Once that was done, the top of the upright boards were hidden by gluing a long piece across the planed upper surfaces of the top rails. This was clamped overnight until the glue cured.

Step 3: Sides

To get a comfortable height for the seat and armrests, and a good angle for the backrest, I propped the seat up on a variety of toolboxes and shims until it felt right, and then repeated the exercise for the arms and finally the back.

I had made a wild guess at 3'3" for the high bits of the side and 2'3" for the arms, which was actually pretty close.

The side pieces were assembled in exactly the same way as the backrest panel, with hidden screws holding the outside rails and counter-bored and plugged screws holding the inner rails.

I used counter-bored screws to fix a rail to the inside of the piece on which the seat could rest. This proved to be a bad idea.

Once the seat was resting on the rails, the backrest was fitted and a small piece of timber glued and screwed (fifth photograph above) to support it. At this stage the backrest was just sitting in place.

I drew around the backrest as it was fitted and added an inch, and then cut that shape into the sides using a jigsaw. This was another mistake, as I had not at that point fitted the top lip to the top of the back, and so the sides were cut too low.

Step 4: Test Assemble

The blocks which were fitted to the sides to support the seat were held in place with counter-bored screws.

They were just strong enough to hold the load, but the lateral stability of the piece relied on the screws which were fitted through the sides of the seat into the side pieces.

Those screws had about half an inch of grip into the boards, which was nowhere near strong enough to handle the stresses when the assembled bench was tugged from one side. They ripped right out, which required a rethink of how to hold the whole thing together.

As it transpired, this was actually a good thing. The solution (shown in a couple of steps) used bolts, which can be easily removed to dismantle the piece. It was as I pondered alternative, non-screw assembly methods that I realised that the finished piece would not fit through the workshop doorway, and therefore disassembly and re-assembly was a definite requirement.

Step 5: Fiddly Bits

To recover from the lack of initial design, and the poor choice of jigsawing to shape too early, there were a number of crimes to cover.

The end-grain of the rails on the sides (top and bottom) was concealed by cutting thin (1/8") pieces from scrap and fixing them in place using two-part epoxy. I couldn't use PVA here as the fit was too loose and there was a lot of end-grain involved, but the Araldite (other brands are available) worked a treat here.

To put a capping piece on the arms, I used the same tongue and groove which had supplied all of the piece minus the seat. This was going to have an ugly gap on the inside where the tongue was, so I sawed off the groove from the outside (photograph 4) and then used PVA to glue it in place. That was a bit of an emergency measure, but it worked very well and looks far better than it has any right to. Once they were smoothed off on both sides, the arm caps were glued in place with epoxy.

Other small pieces of scrap from earlier in the project were cut to shape for the front of the angle and the top. The pieces covering the angled (and stepped) front were held in place with counter-bored and plugged screws, while the capping pieces on the top were held in place with epoxy.

Step 6: Robust Assembly

Following the failure of the earlier assembly method, I bought some M8 bolts and Tee-Nuts.

The side pieces were modified by prising out the wooden plugs and then removing the screws.

Then the support piece was glued (PVA) and screwed to the underside of the seat. This fixing was made with longer screws (the wood which forms the seat is a good two inches thick) and there was a good contact area for white wood glue to hold.

A large hole was drilled through the outside to accommodate the Tee-nut, then the hole was continued through the support piece. A washer was used on the inside (where the bolt head was tightened) to reduce the amount of crushing which the wood underwent.

The second photograph shows the first test assembly using the bolts. As can be seen, they are too long, so shorter ones were acquired for later steps.

Two short offcuts of the tongue and groove were glued together to make a block which was glued and screwed to the rear of the backrest. This block (one each side) provided a location to hold the backrest to the side pieces using bolts.

Once this was done and everything was torqued-up, the pew was solid as a rock, and could even be dragged around the workshop without any flexing or distortion being evident. Earlier problem solved!

Step 7: Finishing

With the structure complete, it was time to make it look nice.

I dismantled the piece into its four major components, went over the whole surface of each piece with reducing grits of sandpaper, finishing at 240.

Then I washed all the pieces with a rag soaked in kerosene to get rid of dust and grease, and then gave a couple of coats of Danish Oil, with a long dry and a short sand and wipe between coats.

To hide where the Tee-nuts were fitted, I took small scraps of the boards and cut them into thin layers with a handsaw. A chamfer was put on all four edges, and then a Forstner bit was used to drill a wide but shallow blind hole on the inside.

Lastly, once the piece was re-assembled, hot glue was used to fix these covers in place. Hot glue was used as it is pretty weak, so if a too-long bolt is ever used and the cover is forced off by a penetrating bolt, then the error will be discovered with no significant damage to the piece, and the cover can be re-fixed once the correct bolt is found.

As an aside, regarding re-assembly: remember that the door to your workshop may be too small to fit the completed pew and so it is a really good idea to check this before doing anything which you can't easily undo.

Step 8: Cushion

I have never really sewn anything before, so this was a bit of a journey of discovery.

I discovered that I don't like sewing.

A local foam-rubber supplier cut to size, and did an amazingly accurate job of providing a foam block exactly to specifications.

I bought three yards of upholstery fabric, which turned out to be a great idea as it mean that both the sides of the cushion, and the piping, could be made in a single continuous piece, reducing the amount of sewing required. The cutting which I did is given in the file "Settle Cushion 2" which is attached.

The piping was made by wrapping a thin strip of fabric around the cord, and then sewing that all the way around the top piece of the cushion. The third photograph shows the rather ugly cuts which had to be made to get around the corners, but they are concealed inside the finished cushion.

Once the piping was sewn to the top, the single three-yard strip which was to form the sides was sewn on to the top. I remembered to stagger this so that the extra thickness at the start/finish seam was offset from the start/finish seam on the piping, which was a relief.
The bottom of the cushion was sewn to the side without piping. This seam started a couple of inches in from the back corner, and then went round the corner, down the side, along the front, along the other side and then just a couple of inches round the corner to the back, leaving a gaping hole.

Finally, a three-foot long zip was fitted to that gap. It is possible to buy zips in all sorts of colours, but since the zip will be hidden in use, and since I had a spare one, the zip does not match the cushion at all.

As a footnote, I would like to extend a heartfelt "THANK YOU" to Peg Baker, whose videos on YouTube were clear and extremely helpful.

Step 9: Next Time

The main niggles with this project were the paint-stripping, the trim on the arms and side-fronts, the bolt-covers and the cushion.

The paint-stripping is time-consuming and a huge pain, but practice makes perfect. By the end of this project I was much faster and neater, and almost never gave myself nasty chemical burns. Washing the surface with meths rather than water is a definite "do this every time" thing to remember.

The ends of the arms are not great. If I had thought it through, I would have lengthened the top and bottom rails of the sides just an inch or so, and then mounted a one-inch strip of timber vertically in that gap, probably using PVA. That could then have been shaped to give a featured cross-grain effect.

The trim on the side-fronts was also sub-optimal. Cutting the profile onto the sides before the backrest had been finalised was a mistake. The little pieces covered that up well, and actually look pretty good, but there is a better way of doing this somewhere and I intend to consider the matter.

The bolt covers are ugly, but we need the strength of the bolt/T-nut interface to ensure this heavy piece is robust enough. Using hot-glue is a good solution to fitting them given the potential for damage in the indeterminate future.

The cushion. I hate sewing. I made some practice runs making piping and corners on some old jeans, but getting things to match at the end of a three-yard seam is hard.

Finally, there are a couple of nicks on the front of the seat where fasteners formed an L-joint in the worksurface while it was a kitchen. It should be possible to find a scrap of Rimu which is matched enough to make filler pieces, but I don't see that flaw when I'm sitting on the seat, so it wasn't enough of a priority to be fixed.

But... I have a nice-looking, solid-feeling pew which is extremely comfortable, having been sized precisely for me.

Furniture Contest 2018

Runner Up in the
Furniture Contest 2018